Revelations from a drug trafficking case in New York illustrated the depth of police collusion with criminal groups in Honduras, which included murdering rivals and safeguarding drug loads.
The information emerged in the case against Carlos Alberto Valladares Zúñiga, a former Honduran police official facing sentencing in the Southern District of New York.
As part of the accusation, Assistant US Attorney Emil Bove said Valladares —who was a regional commander of the special criminal investigations unit (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal - DNIC) in San Pedro Sula— committed murder for the once powerful Cachiros drug trafficking organization, reported La Prensa.
"The defendant's conduct was not limited to simply helping transport narcotics or providing information to drug traffickers," Bove wrote in a September 10 letter addressed to the judge in the case. "The defendant participated in several murders in furtherance of the drug-trafficking conspiracy."
On one occasion in October 2011, Valladares mounted a death squad partly composed of police officers to assassinate a Cachiros' rival known as “El Sapo,” or "The Toad." The former Honduran cop drove the then-Cachiros leader Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga “so they could witness a mass attack on rival drug traffickers,” reads Bove’s letter.
In a scene resembling that from a Hollywood movie, after arriving at the point of attack, the two men watched from a safe distance as a firefight left six dead.
“You’re about to hear what war sounds like,” Valladares told Rivera Maradiaga, according to La Prensa.
Valladares, who pleaded guilty in May 2018 and admitted to conspiring with the Cachiros for nearly a decade, also recruited between eight and ten police commissioners for the Cachiros, according to El Heraldo. Once on the Cachiros’ payroll, these commissioners were tasked with ensuring the safe passage of drug shipments.
Valladares is among several former Honduran police officers to face US charges stemming from the testimony of Rivera Maradiaga, whose cooperation with the DEA has rocked Honduran elites and landed the son of former President Porfirio Lobo in jail.
Last month, in a letter to the judge in charge of the case, Valladares’ defense attorney admitted that his client “made the terrible mistake of doing favors for the people who controlled drug trafficking with the active assistance of the Government of Honduras.”
But the attorney argued that there was “no turning back” once the initial mistake had been made and asked for a lighter sentence of five years, rather than the 14 to 17.5 years the government prosecutor Bove recommended.
“It is clear that if he did not continue to work with Leonel Rivera and his associates, he would have been deemed a security risk and murdered,” the defense lawyer's letter reads.
InSight Crime Analysis
The depth of corruption revealed by Bove’s letter and the case, in general, is striking. By using even the highest ranks of the national police as recruitment pools to carry out the Cachiros’ dirty work, Valladares illustrated what could be considered the deepest possible level of collusion between police and organized crime.
Valladares' is not an isolated case. In 2014, the government shut down the entire DNIC and suspended its 1,400 employees due to suspected collusion with criminal groups.
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Such profound corruption has not disappeared in recent years. A special commission has purged over 5,000 police officers since 2016, many on suspicion of corruption.
Omar Rivera, the head of the commission, recently told InSight Crime that police ties with organized crime in the country were "historically institutionalized." Rivera called it "a fraternal relationship.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, the political will needed to lastingly deal with corruption appears lacking. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández had promised to tackle the issue during his campaign in 2017, but his contested reelection has left him with little political capital. What's more, Hernández' own brother has been implicated by Rivera Maradiaga’s court testimony.